Brendan Crossan: Neymar's magic ready to eclipse Ronaldo
BARCELONA were 3-1 up against Athletic Bilbao and in cruise control in the closing stages of last season’s Copa Del Rey final at Camp Nou.
Near the corner flag and confronted by Bilbao right-back Unai Bustinza, Neymar attempted an audacious piece of skill. Known as the rainbow flick - or if you’re of a certain vintage, the Ossie Ardiles flick where a player lifts the ball over his and the defender’s head with the intricate use of his trailing back leg - the Brazilian tried his luck and was immediately felled by Bustinza. All hell broke loose among the Bilbao players as they deemed Neymar's rainbow flick a lack of respect.
Surrounded by opposition players, Xavi rushed to Neymar’s aid and ushered him away to safety. After the game, Xavi admonished his team-mate for ‘showboating’ and said that, while that kind of stuff might be applauded in Brazil, it was frowned upon in Spain. Xavi couldn't have been more wrong.
The last thing anyone should be doing is suppressing individualism and audacity on a football field. God knows, there are enough clones in football. What Neymar did in the dying moments of the Copa Del Rey final would be coached out of most young footballers. Rather than being scorned, Neymar should have been applauded for daring to do something differently.
There is too much political correctness and mock outrage in today's game. And yet, where was the outrage when Bustinza tried to seriously injure Neymar with two wild tackles moments earlier? Where was Athletic Bilbao’s control?
To view Neymar’s moment of skill as merely a piece of self-indulgent theatre ignores the game's sub-plot. After being floored twice by Bustinza, Neymar’s revenge was to intimidate his opponent with skill. The real sinner on the night was Bustinza who, like a lot of cynical defenders, relies on the dark arts to survive.
Thankfully, Neymar has shown no signs of remorse for his ‘treacherous’ act that night in May and, judging by his subsequent performances this season, the Brazilian’s way of seeing the game remains non-negotiable. If Neymar was to take on board the 'showboating' criticisms and the politically correct hoo-ha, then we probably wouldn't have been treated to another slice of his genius against Villarreal last Sunday afternoon.
In a slick counter-attack, he accepted a low pass from strike partner Luis Suarez just inside the penalty area and, with one flick of the ball over the Villarreal defender and a 360-degree spin, the Barca striker met the ball at the other side and volleyed into the net. It was a scandalous bit of skill in the soaring career of the 23-year-old.
Before he left Santos in 2013, the jury remained sceptical about Brazil's new superstar. He was an undoubted YouTube hit, but he could really only achieve greatness by moving to Europe. For some people, Neymar was something of a slow-burner. He needed time to settle at Barcelona, but he showed in his first El Clasico (2013/14) his undoubted potential by scoring the opening goal and providing an assist for Alexis Sanchez.
But Neymar’s stuttering trajectory in his first season wasn’t helped by Tata Martino’s tactical indecision as Barcelona coach. Often, the Argentine coach would place Neymar on the right flank - the wrong flank - which limited his impact in games.
It was only at last year’s World Cup finals that Neymar’s claim to true greatness was legitmate. For one so young, the flamboyant striker was the one shaft of light in the worst Brazilian team in history. He single-handedly carried Luiz Felipe Scolari’s journeymen to the quarter-finals before a crude tackle by Colombian defender Juan Zuniga ended his tournament.
Neymar offered his national team hope and leadership. There were moments in the first-half of their memorable knock-out game against Chile where he showed real steel. Facing a fanatically fit and rugged opponent, Neymar still managed to put the fear of God into the Chileans with some awe-inspiring, penetrating dribbles. That day, he showed his greatest asset: fearlessness.
In his absence, Brazil collapsed to eventual winners Germany at the semi-final stages. Great players will always flourish on the big stage. Indeed, the bigger the occasion, the better they are.
This season, Neymar’s performances have been faultless. When Lionel Messi suffered a knee injury, which has kept him out of action for nearly two months, the spotlight shifted to Neymar to see how he would respond. He delivered an emphatic answer. He has thrived with the extra responsibility placed on his narrow shoulders, so much so that he has started the process of pushing Cristiano Ronaldo into third place in the current list of today’s greats (Messi obviously monopolises top spot).
When judging the skill sets of both Ronaldo and Neymar, the Brazilian will inevitably eclipse the Real Madrid star. Ronaldo, of course, has proven he is a great goalscorer. A modern phenomenon. But Ronaldo will never be regarded as the best of his era because of Messi and his superior skill-set.
Crucially, Messi and Neymar are better in two specific areas: work ethic and team play. Too often in games, Ronaldo ignores the simple pass and is too keen to shoot for goal from ridiculous angles of the field. Neymar can be extravagant, but he is also a professor of the simple pass, the right pass at the right time in games. Like Neymar, Messi has great awareness and appreciates the effectiveness of the simple pass.
Ronaldo has already left an indelible mark on the game and will go down as one of the all-time great footballers. But he can never reach Messi's standards.
And before too long, a similar refrain that he'll never be as good as Neymar will be ringing in his ears.